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Report on an unannounced inspection of Whanganui Prison - 4 September 2018

Prisoners / Corrections
Peter Boshier
Issue date:

Whanganui Prison (the Prison) accommodates male prisoners with security classifications ranging from minimum to high, as well as having management responsibility for New Plymouth Remand Centre (NPRC) which accommodates male and female prisoners. The Prison has an operating capacity of 581, including 24 at the NPRC. It has a large Māori population (60 percent).

My Inspectors observed generally positive interactions between staff and prisoners. Staff spoke positively about the generally collaborative approach at Whanganui, and described co-operation between groups as ‘better than in some other places’. This was particularly valued as pressures resulting from increased prisoner numbers were identified as raising stress and fatigue issues for staff. Case managers provided a timely and satisfactory level of service to their prisoners.

Admission processes were carried out in a calm and measured manner, facilitated by well-established liaison with the Police and Courts. Muster pressures were placing additional strain on systems and resources, most notably staff, vehicles, sentence calculation checks and property management. Inspectors were concerned that arrangements for health screening on admission were inadequate and foreign nationals and non-English speakers had limited access to support.

Overall, health services were adequate and I welcome the addition of Improving Mental Health Clinicians to the Prison team. Both custodial staff and prisoners welcomed this support to address mental health challenges in the prison. However, my Inspectors found no evidence that the prison sought to identify emerging trends to inform service delivery. At times, staffing shortages and increased demand had contributed to service delivery standards not being met. There was little evidence of care planning for patients with complex, long-term conditions.

With the exception of the Te Tirohanga programme, cultural provision across the site was limited. There had been a decline in interactions across the Prison with kaumātua and iwi in the past few years although, on an individual level, relationships with the Prison Director were good. The Prison did not always manage the needs of vulnerable prisoners effectively or appropriately, and some prisoners with physical disabilities did not always have their basic needs met. The lack of a National Equality and Diversity Strategy was apparent to my Inspectors.

At the time of inspection, the At-Risk Unit (ARU) was not being used for its intended purpose as none of the prisoners it housed were assessed as being at risk of self-harm or suicide. The ARU had become a default facility for prisoners who were difficult to place due to behavioural issues and vulnerabilities, and for de-escalation following use of force.

I consider there is a clear and urgent need for the Prison to address the levels of violence and intimidation. Levels of notifiable incidents of violence each month were high. Non-notifiable incidents such as fighting, sparring and unexplained injuries were also high. Prisoners reported that stand-overs and bullying were common. More than 40 percent of prisoners were gang members or affiliates, yet the Prison did not have an active gang management strategy.

At the time of the inspection, 127 remand-accused prisoners were held at the Prison (22 percent of the Prison population), and these prisoners were locked in their cells for prolonged periods. During the course of the inspection, we noted that prisoners in the Extension Unit, who were not subject to any segregation direction under the Corrections Act 2004, were locked for up to 22 hours a day.

My Inspectors considered the constructive activities for remand-accused and voluntary segregated prisoners to be of a lower standard than that of sentenced prisoners. Both prisoners and staff reported that these activities were limited. Most time out of cell, particularly in the high-security units, was non-productive due to this lack of available activities.

Accommodation was generally clean, well maintained and of a reasonable standard with the exception of the Extension Unit, which had limited natural light and a lack of communal space, and Te Moenga, which was cramped and did not afford appropriate levels of privacy.

Ventilation in both high and low-security units was inadequate. Staff and prisoners reported that the temperatures in the Prison over the previous three months (December-February) were the hottest they had known. Food was generally wholesome, but meal times did not reflect normal meal times, an issue that is reflected across the prison estate.

Inspectors focus on what they find at the time of the inspection, and while I am always prepared to acknowledge good intentions, I remain cautious about future plans that may or may not come to fruition in terms of improving outcomes for prisoners. The Prison is constrained in terms of the progressing national initiatives which have yet to be finalised. This report refers to the Department of Corrections’ plans for the development of At-Risk Units, the publication of a national equality and diversity strategy, development of a gang management strategy, and a national review of prisoner meal times as part of a project reviewing staff shift patterns. My Inspectors and I will continue to monitor progress in these specific areas both nationally and at a local level.

In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge and express my appreciation to the managers and staff of the Prison and NPRC for the full co-operation they extended to my Inspectors. I also welcome the Department of Corrections’ responses to my findings and recommendations, which I include in this report. To accept 33 out of 37 recommendations reflects our mutual desire to strengthen protections against ill treatment and improve conditions of detention.

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